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KERAgate Baffles Kentucky Parents and Taxpayers
Louisville, KY --The Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA), which was passed by the legislature in early 1990, has grown more controversial with each passing year. Parents are so unhappy with KERA that they are pulling their children out of public schools in record numbers. Kentucky is now the number-one state in declining public school enrollment.
Parents' concerns were confirmed by several studies released in 1995. The American College Test (ACT) had quietly released findings to the Kentucky Department of Education in spring 1994. ACT had warned that the KERA test, a performance-based test, was not individually reliable. The Department sat on those results until forced to release them to legislators.
Western Michigan University was hired to study KERA and publicly released its evaluation in February 1995. These results were six months late because the Kentucky Department of Education was allowed to preview it, make lengthy criticisms, and return it to Western Michigan for revisions. The evaluation was returned five times with demands for changes.
The final report said the KERA test was not only working to the detriment of teaching basic skills and narrowing the curriculum in Kentucky schools (i.e., students are taught less), but also that the test was not valid and reliable enough to base school rewards on the scores. Though Department of Education personnel had been reading this report for months, they still gave out over $26 million of the people's money in school rewards just eleven days before the report was made public. Seven days later, the state commissioner of education abruptly resigned. He had no job prospects; he said the timing was right for him to leave.
In March, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released its study of 4th grade reading in Kentucky. While the KERA test had shown an 89% improvement in scores from 1992 to 1994, the NAEP scores showed no improvement.
In June came the results of a study done by a national, hand-picked panel, a "dream team" of experts, paid for with the taxpayers' money. Their report confirmed earlier reports that the test was not valid or reliable, calling it "seriously flawed." It also said that the Department of Education, the State School Board, and our testing company, Advanced Systems of New Hampshire, had been overstating, exaggerating, misleading and misinforming the public regarding student learning progress.
Though the panel members were flown to Kentucky to testify before the Education Committee's Subcommittee on Accountability, they were allowed a mere one hour of a two-hour meeting to both report and answer questions. The explanation was that the Department of Education was also present and deserved equal time. In the brief time for questions, the panel revealed that the testing data gathered over the last four years -- costing Kentuckians $100 million -- would be of little or no use.
The experts also acknowledged that there is now no way to determine if Kentucky students are doing better or worse than before KERA, nor is there any way to compare their achievement with that of students in other states. One senator called for an investigation of the Department, the state school board, and Advanced Systems but he couldn't even get a second to his motion.
Prior to the meeting of the full Education Committee, Eagle Forum held a news conference calling for an investigation. Other education groups participated in the conference, along with a senator and representative who are members of the Education Committee. In the subsequent committee meeting, the motion for an investigation failed. Instead, the committee voted to extend the contract with Advanced Systems, the testing company that had already spent $100 million, for another year at the cost of another $7.5 million of the people's money.
When the bid request went out to testing companies for a new contract for 1997, an open records request revealed memos from members of the panel of experts saying that it looked like it would be "business as usual" in the Kentucky tests. Their recommendations, which the people had paid to receive, were ignored.
On January 17, 1996, a newspaper headline read "Only 1 Bidder Pursues State's School-test Contract." The lone bidder was none other than Advanced Systems of New Hampshire, a company that was small and relatively unknown in 1991 when it was awarded the original contract over much larger and more experienced testing companies. An education department spokesman refused to speculate on why there was just one bidder on the contract. The state school board will award the contract in April.
Kentuckians who are paying attention are asking for a legislative investigation of what has become widely known as "KERAgate." -- Reported by Donna Shedd